Compared to the great protest marches of the 1980s, global public opinion on the catastrophic dangers posed by the 16,000-plus nuclear weapons held by nine countries (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) is largely apathetic today. Most people seem to think the dangers disappeared with the end of the Cold War. The belief is dangerously wrong and we risk sleepwalking into a nuclear disaster — and the point to remember about sleepwalking is that those doing it are not aware of it at the time.

As geopolitical tensions rise once again in three different geographical theaters — East Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe — their repercussions include risks of reversals on arms control agreements. Thus the U.S. accuses Russia of violating the old nuclear arms control agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces (1987) even while a new agreement on reciprocal exchanges by nuclear scientists is mothballed just 11 months after being signed.

The Ukrainian crisis proves the essential uselessness of nuclear weapons. NATO’s nukes did not deter Russia from annexing Crimea. Nor were they adequate to reassure Eastern European allies against the perceived rising threat from Russia; only additional deployments of conventional troops achieved that result. That’s why abolition remains an irreducible, as well as distant, goal.

Meanwhile, there is still some low-hanging fruit to be plucked on the nuclear arms control agenda. This article shows why a global convention to enshrine a universal no first use (NFU) policy is one such fruit, and explains why Australia is a credible candidate to lead the push for such a convention.

The intent to be the first to use nuclear weapons faces an unresolvable paradox. If the adversary is not nuclear armed, the use of nuclear weapons would exact too heavy a moral and political price for the threat to be credible.

This explains why Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 despite the British nuclear deterrent: It was confident that the U.K. would not escalate to the use of nuclear weapons.

If the adversary is nuclear-armed and has credible second-strike retaliatory capability, then too a first use posture is not credible as its execution would inflict unacceptable damage on the initiator of nuclear hostilities: a military defeat is always preferable to national annihilation. It would also put the full weight of world moral opprobrium on the side using nuclear weapons first.

The only rational strategy is to threaten but not actually use nuclear weapons first. But if carrying out the threat would be national suicide, then the threat cannot be credible. And a noncredible threat cannot deter.

Thus what is important is not a first-use policy, but credible second-strike capability. Once that is attained, a NFU policy, backed by an appropriate nuclear force posture and deployment patterns, is a critical step back from nuclear brinksmanship while shifting the onus of nuclear escalation on the adversary.

Furthermore, a NFU policy avoids the need for forward deployment, launch-on-warning postures, and pre-delegation of authority to battlefield commanders, thereby significantly dampening the prospects of accidental and unauthorized use. A NFU policy also counteracts crisis instability as it reduces the pressure on decision-makers to “use or lose” their nuclear arsenal. The temptation to use nuclear weapons preemptively are lessened.

It is simplistic therefore to dismiss NFU as ignored in war time. A universal NFU policy by all nine nuclear-armed states would have considerable practical import with flow-on requirements for nuclear force posture and deployment — for example, de-alerting (taking weapons off high operational alert status: 2,000 nuclear weapons are presently held in hair-trigger launch-on-warning readiness), de-mating (separating warheads from delivery vehicles and storing them apart in disassembled state) and de-targeting (keeping weapons without aiming them at specific targets). This would promote confidence-building while strengthening the norm of nonuse of nuclear weapons.

Why should Australia take the lead on the issue and not just leave it to the nine nuclear-armed states?

To begin with, under the nonproliferation treaty nuclear disarmament is a shared security responsibility of all countries party to the treaty, not just the prerogative of the nuclear powers to be done at their whim and pleasure. Anything that reduces the risks of a nuclear exchange is in the security interests of all countries.

Australia also has a proud tradition of global leadership on niche arms control issues. Most recently Canberra led the efforts to secure the Arms Trade Treaty and a U.N. Security Council resolution on light arms and small weapons.

Gareth Evans played a key role in the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, followed by Alexander Downer’s critical role in shepherding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) through the U.N. General Assembly when it was stalemated in Geneva. We can make good use of the multilateral U.N. when we are not busy scapegoating it for our bilateral failures.

Asia is the only continent where numbers of nuclear weapons are actually still rising (in China, India, North Korea and Pakistan), so leadership from within Asia makes sense. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan is also considered to be among the most plausible by the specialist community.

Australia is among a handful of Asia-Pacific countries with the entire supporting infrastructure — quality of political and bureaucratic leadership, scientific and technical expertise, credibility in all the relevant constituencies, and financial and human resources — to be able to consider launching a sustained initiative on this.

At the same time, China and India are officially committed to a NFU policy and thus there are no adverse implications for Australia’s bilateral relations with these key countries. And there are good reasons to believe that Washington also wants to move in this direction but has been held back by the nervousness of some allies in Asia and Europe.

All of which puts the reach of low-hanging fruit of a NFU convention within Australia’s normative grasp. Japan should strongly support Australia in such an initiative — as the first — and mercifully so far the only country against whom atomic weapons were used. It must join hands to make sure such weapons are not used again. A global NFU convention would be a small but very real step on that long journey.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.

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